There are several maritime trackers available, and Valour Consultancy has one of the best. With AIS and registration data, this is a straightforward if tedious occupation. Of course, if we can track the ships, we can track the cargo (ignoring the 600 or so vessels in the ‘Dark Fleet’ trading sanctioned cargoes which are sometimes characterised as old rust buckets but are sometimes new-builds that have been built on spec.)
Such tracking allows us to have access to weather data and data on current ‘roadblocks’ such as the danger of piracy, terrorist threats, mines, international enmity, or problems in major canals, then we have a recipe for interactive logistics for customers and shipping companies. Several companies are offering such a service, generally referred to as “Voyage Optimisation”. These will take in the usual variables mentioned in the second section and then add various other objectives such as fuel minimisation, time of arrival, emissions reduction, minimising costs, allowance for wind assistance (if sail assistance is being used), availability of alternative fuels, etc.
Voyage optimisation is a difficult target, given the number of variables that have to be balanced out. It is made much easier by the incorporation of AI, which, in turn, depends on the availability and quantity of data covering each variable that is available for analysis. AI does not theorise; it takes as much data as it can and develops “Rules of Thumb”, or algorithms, as the techies like to call them. It is also quite difficult to take into account the kind of contract that the vessel is under as, for instance, when the spot rate for a vessel is high, then it can be more cost-effective for charterers to try to minimise charter time and attempt to arrive at their destination as quickly as possible, travelling at full speed and burning excessive fuel. Arriving early can maximise wait time to load or unload cargo, thus being able to charge demurrage fees.
It is also a difficult sell to the market as, to really mangle a metaphor, the proof of the pudding is the lack of flies in the soup. There are many trouble spots in the maritime world, such as the Malacca Straits, the South China Sea for both piracy and attempted Chinese hegemony and the Straits of Taiwan, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea (Houthi Rebel missile strikes), the Gulf of Guinea, Benin, Nigeria, Somalia, Indonesia (the Sulu Sea, The Celebes Sea, and the Riau Archipelago), the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean, Dardanelles, Bosphorus and Black Sea, Northern Brazil and Colombia, plus the normal navigational hazards of the Suez and Panama Canals, congested waterways around major ports and winter transits of the North Atlantic and arctic regions. So, saying, the vast majority of maritime mercantilism is untroubled and, despite labour troubles and pandemic shutdowns, is fairly seamless.
In all likelihood, vessels and shipping lines employing voyage optimisation will attract more favourable insurance rates and may even be able to maintain classification ratings and regulation compliance by allowing optimal route choices based on the weather forecast, currents and the ship performance characteristics with respect to the safety, energy consumption and environment. Indeed, AI performance optimisation using detailed modelling and creation of digital twins theoretically minimises stresses and strain on the vessel, its components and its cargo.
The following list of companies offering voyage optimisation software is only an alphabetical list, nor is it guaranteed to be complete. As we have seen, competition in software operating applications is harsh, and many are born and almost as many fail.
- ABS Wavesight
- Admiralty Maritime Data Solutions
- Ascenz Marorka
- Blue Visby
- Blue Water
- Kongsberg Digital
- LR OneOcean
- NAPA Finland
- Nautilus Labs (acquired by Danelec in Q4 2023)
- Offshore Navigation
- Optimum Voyage
- Storm Geo
- True North Marine
- Zero North
There is another notable offering – Virtual Watchtower that includes optimisation of transit from factory gate to customer. However, the input from concerned parties might make this application somewhat unwieldy.
Each of the above-mentioned companies offers a unique selling point that may be examined in more detail in future articles.
At the moment, the industry is still forming a market for voyage optimisation, and given the Maritime Industry’s adherence to a 2,000-year-old dictum proposed in the Tamil holy verse “Tirukkuṟaḷ” and fleshed out substantially by John Locke and Adam Smith, the law of supply and demand will apply. Lowest cost and best results will achieve victory, remembering their maritime contracts whereby the charterer can benefit from non-optimal voyages.
As already mentioned, the mass of data needed for each variable optimisation is not always available and those companies using data supplied by third party vendors, such as the meteorological forecasters, are at their mercy. One company mentioned above boasts its own fleet of weather buoys, but not all of these are on trading routes. The next few years promises to be very interesting and that is not always comfortable.